'At The Movies' is cancelled: A bad thing for criticism on TV?

The news that At The Movies has been cancelled — a show that began its life under the title Sneak Previews on PBS in 1978 — is certainly the end of an era in the TV presentation of reviewing and criticism. And it’s sadly ironic that the show should be snuffed just as it attained two hosts, A. O. Scott and Michael Phillips, who are probably the most rigorous film critics the franchise ever had. (It bears noting that on his Chicago Sun-Times blog, Ebert has already announced he’ll proceed with plans for “a new movie review program on television.)

Two things, quickly. First: There will be a lot of wailing about At The Movies disappearing, but such protestations are like the ones that abounded when Conan O’Brien was ousted from The Tonight Show — i.e., it’s likely that few of the people who now regret the passing of At The Movies are actually watching it every week these days. Second: We shouldn’t forget that the show’s original hosts, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, were not always the lionized figures they are today.

When the duelling Chicago newspaper critics debuted their show on PBS, there was a lot of solemn squawking within the halls of criticism that Siskel and Ebert’s trademarked thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach was debasing, over-simplifying, the analysis of movies. On one level, that disapproval was deserved: Using a few peppery paragraphs of spoken words and a final see-it, don’t-see-it standard doesn’t allow for much subtlety, context, or historical perspective. Ebert himself was always aware of this. A Philadelphia Inquirer film critic, Carrie Rickey, has told the story that, after seeing her “pontificate on television, [Ebert told her,] ‘Honey, remember on TV it’s OK to put back in all the clichés you edit out in your writing.”

Exactly. TV requires brevity and wit usually gets edited out. Of course, it can’t be all cliches, which is what the most dismal version of At The Movies, the one co-hosted by Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, had in abundance. The Bens were brought in for that most cynical and deluded of TV-production reasons — they were younger than previous hosts, therefore they’d attract the youth demo!

This was a fundamental misunderstanding of Siskel and Ebert’s original appeal, which was, as I wrote in EW in 2000, “like that other halcyon PBS hero, chef Julia Child, Ebert and Siskel were unusual but natural TV personalities. Neither was conventionally handsome (a polite way of saying Ebert often looked as if he had to be shoehorned into his movie-theater seat, while the chrome-domed Siskel resembled an antic accountant), but their genuine Chicago-newspaper competitiveness came through the screen.”

I always thought that if listening to Roger Ebert or A.O. Scott inspired anyone to start reading their more evocative works in print, or the work of great films critics such as Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, or Andrew Sarris, to name just three, then the TV movie review show was a force for good.

The fact is, At The Movies in its current syndicated version had been shunted off to lousy time periods in many markets around the country. The energetic, articulate discussions between Scott and Phillips was a rare thing to see at a time when Rotten Tomatoes-style aggregation of reviews reduces everything to my-opinion-is-as-valid-as-yours; the latest hosts faced hurdles that Siskel and Ebert never encountered. At a time when space for serious reviews, not just of movies but also TV, music, and books, is shrinking nearly everywhere, the cancellation of At The Movies is, yes, bad for criticism, but also, sadly, inevitable.

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  • TVAddict

    My jaw dropped when I saw this headline. I DO watch “At the Movies” every single week and really liked Michael Phillips.

    • meyesme

      I also watch it every week and was shocked at this headline. The best thing about these two is that I was usually able to figure out, by listening to their critiques, not just whether THEY enjoyed a film, but whether I would.

      • chris

        I watched it every week too. It got me to watch the movie Adam which I loved!

      • iheartpoco

        I PVR it in 3 time slots, so I don’t get stuck with “At the Basketball Game” – my Monday dinner viewing will never be the same. :( Luckily, we can still read their fantastic reviews online.

      • GROWING PAINS FAN

        I watched it every week – I loved Scott and Phillips’ wit. Their high point had to be one of their early episodes when A.O. Scott started speaking oddly in jibberish only to snap out of it and tell the viewers “this pretentious nonsense is what you get from this film” – I knew the show was back. This is a wrong move – give it a decent time slot and people will watch.

    • Quirky

      This is sad. The greatest thing about the show was how they always championed the smaller independent films that never had the marketing budget of the big hollywood movies. It was because of “At The Movies” that I saw movies like Reservoir Dogs and became a bigger fan of independent films.

      • Donna

        I agree. I watch every week and love hearing the reviews. But the main reason I watch is to discover smaller films that I don’t hear about anywhere else.

    • Ha

      Pun intended.

      • Hadis

        I dont think that cigarettes and ahcolol are worse than coca-cola.. actually they are not. I’m not preaching you not to enjoy your life, just said that Coca Cola is VERY bad for your health. I myself was not aware of it, and used to drink a lot, until I got wise and learn and read about the damange. By the way - Coca Cola is especially bad for females, even more than males because of their bone structure.

    • LOL

      My local station moved it around so much that it became almost impossible to find.

    • Sergiu

      If you want something else you can try http://www.stupidformovies.com. There is a show every week.
      A new online show with real critics talking about movies.
      You could all give a try.

  • CC

    Thanks Ken. I really do hate this phase of film criticism that’s, as you put it, centered around the “my-opinion-is-as-valid-as-yours” philosophy. Thankfully there are plenty of good film critics out there that go into much more depth and can deliver an analysis with sophistication and wit. People just have to be willing to dig for it.

  • Brad

    Siskel and Ebert’s At the Movies was good appointment television. While I didn’t agree with their reviews at times I could agree whenever they had splits on their reviews. Some movies were a waste of time going to see. I will miss seeing two men talking about their love of going to the theaters. Plus I think Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilborn are the new Siskel and Ebert with PTI now. Two men debates various topics not just sports.

  • R.J. MacReady

    Further proof that that show needed Siskel.

  • Jack

    Honestly, since Gene passed, the show was never the same. The chemistry of these two was the selling point. People loved to watch them argue as much (or more) than the movies they reviewed.

  • Dave

    I like Michael Phillips when he was the long-term fill-in and I enjoyed the few times I saw him with AO Scott. Probably the best they could do following up Siskel and Ebert and Roper {sic?} – who I also enjoyed. Over time I felt like I knew what parts of their reviews I could rely on the mesh with my taste in movies. But, time marches on and I imagine this was inevitable….

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  • Scott

    Don’t forget that there is another review show on the air: The Rotten Tomatoes Show on Current TV. As for At The Movies, they should have kept Richard Roper… he was great in that seat!

    • Meier

      Great point with ‘The Rotten Tomatoes Show’ – I am continually entertained by this program (and hope to one day show up in an episode via online video chat!). Reviews with a strong intent and ability to be funny.

      • kate

        I too love the Rotten Tomatoes Show! I like that they get many opinions in with their reviews, they show indies as well, and it is consistently funny!

  • Christie

    Unfortunately it became increasingly difficult to even find the program (if it ran in your local area at all). And the critic/host changes didn’t work out very well in some cases. The duo with the most chemistry (not to mention film love) seemed to be Siskel & Ebert.

    • Jeff W.

      I agree, in fact I thought this show had been cancelled a few years ago.

  • Al

    I liked the current hosts but I understand how they may not have broad appeal. Siskel and Ebert were unique in that they could give serious critiques but still be entertaining to everyone.

  • Tim

    This thing should have been killed when Gene Siskel passed. Nobody, save Bob Wilonski who filled in when Roger first got sick, would justify an opinion, and fight for that opinion. That’s what made this show good in its heyday. Gene Siskel would hold a grudge if anyone liked a movie he thought was trash. He would remember if Ebert gave thumbs up to a plucky dog movie and 6 weeks later gave thumbs down to a plucky dog movie. He would force Ebert to explain his logic. It seems since it moved to Disney, and since they started shuffling hosts, movies were liked or disliked, without much reason behind it. Its a sad day, but one that should have come long ago.

  • Belle

    I agree with Jack, I stopped watching when Gene passed away. Roger did not have the chemistry with that Richard fellow. I may not have always agreed on their thumbs up or down but I discovered small independent movies because of Gene & Roger. I liked how they championed young film makers like Spike Lee. I loved after the Oscar Nominations they would have a show on the travesty of some of the actors/movies that were snubbed by the academy.

  • SA23

    I think the problem was the critics themselves. Even if I disagreed with Siskel and Ebert, they always managed to back-up their opinions in interesting ways which I could respect. Scott and Phillips championed Where the Wild Things Are seemingly every week but never fully articulated why they liked this mediocre film so much. It even made their top ten of the decade lists. No one will be talking about this film in a year.

  • DW

    I currently watch the show every single week and love it. This is a bit of a travesty.

  • Lisa

    I do watch “At the Movies” (when I can find it) and really have come to like the show again. (I’m the younger demographic at whom the Bens were aimed. The less said, the better.) The dynamic between Michael Phillips and Tony Scott works very well, and I especially liked when they argued about their 10 Best of the Decade picks. Alas farewell.

    • Arisra

      , I think we ought to view the Bible and our faith, not THROUGH the lens of triotaidn – where we make triotaidn as important as the scripture itself, but WITH triotaidn – giving triotaidn a say, but not the final say, in living out our faith.(sorry to vomit all that on your comment board. clean up on aisle 10.)

  • Rahul

    This is disappointing. I watch the show every week and Michael and Tony were great.

    • MB

      This is a mockery of a travesty of a sham. I cannot remember when I did not watch this show as a weekly requirement. Granted, I had to Tivo it as it aired locally at 5:30 AM. Now what do I do?

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